I remember the day like it was yesterday when a teammate on our men's hockey team asked me if I would be interested in sharing some Leaf season tickets. Jim Phillip had joined our Bull’s Doublerink team after we had decided to recruit a couple new players.
Paul Valenti a close friend brought Jim to check us out insisting that he could help the team. Jim was not a very good hockey player but he quickly became a friend and just kind of grew on me like mold in a damp basement.
Jim, at the time was dating a girl named Donna who always reminded me for some odd reason of K D Lang, purely on looks and obviously not sexual preference. Anyways, Donna’s grandfather had passed away, he had been a Toronto Maple Leaf season ticket holder since the Gardens opened back in 1931. Back in the early 80's long before seat licensing was thought of the Gardens never would allow a season ticket holder to sell or hand over the rights for Leaf tickets.
The Gardens had complete control over the waiting list for season tickets often the wait was in excess of ten years. Jim told me that no one in Donna’s family liked hockey or the Leafs and since Donna was dating Jim who just happened to love the Leafs, he could use the tickets without the family having to inform the Gardens that the actual ticket holder had passed away. The only problem, Jim told me that they were Grey seats but they were good Greys, on the front row and right at center ice. I never really wanted to commit to the Greys because they were often referred to as the “nose bleed” seats.
On many occasions I had sat in the Greys and never really thought much of those seats. The Greys were always a last resort, like Standing Room tickets. The first game that Jim and I attended, I literally fell in love with those seats. They were not just good Greys but great seats, period. Section ninety on the west side, row “A” seats six and seven.
They were great for viewing and had great sight lines. Being front row meant we had the advantage of the railing with a bit more leg room. If you were to follow the red line at center ice straight up to the roof that line would go right between my legs, they were dead center. We were directly under the sacred historic Gondola where Foster Hewitt, Bill Hewitt and now Bob Cole called the play by play to hockey starved Leaf fans across Canada.
The Grey seats were also cheaper by almost half the price than the seats directly in front of us which were the back row of the Greens. The Greys were mostly made up of the die hard Leaf fans that paid for the tickets themselves, there was no corporate money up here.
The fans were a run of the mill assortment from George and his referee shirt to the elderly frail sisters that attended every game. The strange gray haired lady who sat behind me and always had an empty seat beside her, we later found out it was reserved for her husband who had passed away ten years earlier. The elderly lady that sat in our row always munching snacks who had attended every Leaf game at the Gardens for the past fifty years. The couple who always showed up with subs and cans of pop, that we dubbed the picnic people. Greg the hair dresser, punk rocker had the lone season ticket beside us. Jim and Paul both insisted he was a faggot, I never thought so. He loved the Rangers and his favourite player, Rod Gilbert.
When I look back at that assortment of Leaf faithful I was proud and happy to have sat with them.
I was one of them.
The Greys, was where the real fans sat. After a couple of years of Jim and me splitting the tickets we had decided to let Paul share a third of the tics. It only seemed natural since had it not been for Paul bringing Jim to play with the Bull’s I would never have met Jim. When I left Collegiate Sports Jim was hired to work at the Yorkdale store where I had worked with Paul. If I had never left the store Jim and Paul probably never would have met. Besides Paul like Jim and me was a diehard Leaf fan.
It was a perfect fit.
Our usual yearly ritual once we got the tickets in our hands around mid September was pair up all the games. Once we paired up all the tickets, then came the dividing of the games. Who would pick first? We decided mutually that the first year we would start alphabetically which meant that I would have the first pick since “A” is the closest you could get to first. Jim would pick second and Paul would pick third. Paul would also have forth so he would get two straight games followed by Jim and then back to me.
The next year, this year’s first pick would pick last. The guy who got first choice, his reward was any game up front but he would not choose again until the sixth pick. First pick for myself was always the Edmonton Oiler game and my guarantee that I was going to see Gretzky, sometimes on his one and only visit to Toronto.
Jim and Paul would always choose the Montreal game since most years the Habs only would visit Toronto once. We followed the sequence of picking until all the games were chosen and each of us held his own stack of future Maple Leaf memories.
After all the games were picked, Jim, Paul and I traded individual games amongst each other. We each had our half dozen games or so that we could take other friends or our wives but for the most part two of us were in attendance at the majority of all Leaf games.
Playoffs were a different story and depending how many games the Leafs would play or if they even made the playoffs we always went with each other. That was a rule carved in stone. We each got an exhibition game that I never really cared for but it was mandatory for the season ticket holders to pay full price for all exhibition games.
We established free parking by parking at Queens Park in the press parking lot then walking the ten to twenty minutes to the Gardens back door on Wood Street. If we wanted to feel the electric atmosphere on some warmer nights we added an extra ten minutes to the walk and headed along Carlton Street to the main doors and entered under the Gardens historic marquee.
On many nights the weather was at its worse and the walk was unbearable yet I never can recall parking in the expensive parking lots near the Gardens. We did have cheap underground parking at Woman’s College Hospital in the early years but left for Queens Park when it got too pricey.
Besides when the games ended we were always far enough away that by the time we got to our cars the post game traffic jam had disappeared into the night. It was then a quick drive down University Avenue to the Gardiner Expressway.
For a period Jim lived in the High Park area, I would meet him at Lakeshore and Ellis Avenue in his ugly bright green Ford and we would car pool the nights we went together. My fondest memories were the nights driving eastbound along the Gardiner Expressway with the setting sun beaming through the back window listening to the pregame show on the radio. The sun just glistening off the glass paneled downtown sky scrapers as we got close to University Avenue and our ten minute jaunt north up to Queens Park. The traffic was always heavy yet it just seemed to always be moving, it was as if a large asphalt conveyor belt was delivering us Leaf fans to Maple Leaf Gardens.
Exhibition games, regular season and playoff games all totalled meant about twenty-five or thirty trips a season to the “Grand Old Lady” on Carlton Street, she was the one lady I just loved to visit.
Eventually after sixteen years we would lose the privilege of using those tickets and the Gardens would close its doors for good. My Gardens memories will always hold a special place in my heart, a place that is much bigger than anyone can even imagine.
I loved Maple Leaf Gardens.